It could be argued that this major exhibition of Hitchens’ work, the largest since a retrospective at the RA in 1979, gets better as one wanders through it, culminating in his absorption with abstraction. In my view, the closer he got to the abstracted landscape, the better he became. Certainly, his early works from the 1920s in muted greens, browns and palest of blues, had his own stamp on them, but many are painfully ‘thin’, with barely applied oil paint on canvas. There are clear influences from Ben and Winifred Nicholson, with whom he stayed in their farmhouse in Cumbria for a protracted period, along with David Bomberg, Paul Nash and Christopher Wood. He was very taken with Winifred’s notion of painting still lifes of jugs of flowers against a window and a view through it in the background, which served as a visual metaphor for movement between the material and the immaterial, between inner and outer worlds. He stated that ‘one can read into a good flower picture the same problems that one faces with a landscape; near and far, meanings and movements of shapes and brush strokes.’ Patrick Heron, a friend and fellow painter said, ‘For Hitchens colour is light and light is space,’ and Hitchens himself said of his relationship with the natural world, ‘I seek to recreate the truth of nature by making my own song about it (in paint),’ ostensibly singing a solo in the depths of the English countryside. He also likened the affective resonance of colour to ‘the musical appearance of things,’ adding that his paintings were painted ‘to be listened to.’ As Claudia Tobin said in her somewhat mannered essay in the catalogue, ‘the concept of “musical appearances” suggest both a temporal unfolding and a mysterious synaesthetic experience of sound, which challenges conventional characteristics of painting as a static art and the silence and stasis ascribed to still life.’
His move to West Sussex from Hampstead after his studio was bombed in 1940 marked a turning point in his career and a growing fascination with the natural landscape. He first moved into a gypsy caravan in the woods at Lavington Common near Petworth with his wife and infant son, and then built his own house and studio Greenleaves on the site, where he lived for many years, meandering about the surrounding six acres of woodland and painting, sometimes from life en plein air, or back at the studio, using his many detailed and annotated sketchbooks as reference. He was a painter who remained faithful to the earth, to the genius loci, or spirit of place, and yet, one of five lyrically sentient paintings entitled Arno, is not of the river that runs through Florence, but the River Rother and River Itchen in West Sussex. Apparently, he chose to create distance from the locations to further emphasise the painting’s abstract qualities, and Arno II was painted in 1965, and according to the catalogue, was the year when Florence was flooded. The great flood actually happened in November 1966, which destroyed or damaged millions of rare books, manuscripts and masterpieces of art.
He had earlier painted a large canvas entitled Coronation shortly after George VI was crowned in 1937. Allegedly he gave the picture this title, because it suited its ‘regal’ expression of colour, and warned, ‘it would be unwise to seek for any more direct symbolism.’ About this time, his paintings began to expand horizontally, with Winter Stage, Fenland Willows and September Water all around 1.5m wide and many twice as wide as they were tall. His influences were Cézanne, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard, and latterly, Kandinsky, but he still belonged to a tradition of British landscape painting that stretched back to Constable and Turner. He also held firmly with the Japanese term notan, which donates a deliberate harmony of darks and lights, and with which he blended colour and tone. He stated, ‘What I see and feel, I try to reduce to patches and lines of pigment which have an effect upon our aesthetic consciousness, independent of (though interpreting) the facts of nature in terms of a relationship of all the parts.’ Heron added that Hitchens closely followed Cézanne in ‘realising his sensations before nature . . . and who is the only living painter who succeeded in extending the spatial logic of Cubism to the presentation of the landscape.’ He took a seaside cottage near Selsey Bill, and his palette changed radically, with brilliant yellows, deep purples, blancmange pinks and duck-egg blues, while the broad, vibrant brushstrokes of November Revelation is emblematic of Hitchens’ exploration of the relationship between art and music, a connection he never lost, until his death in 1979. This show just gets better as it unfolds, with two dynamic reclining nudes to remind us that he never quite abandoned figurative art, even though it is for his landscapes that he will be best remembered..
Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour
Until 13 October 2019